If there’s one thing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s banal discourse on race reveals is a fundamental dynamic in our “post-racial” society. Much of mainstream America virulently denies it is racist, while simultaneously having racist attitudes and beliefs. Of course the mainstream media will deny this, and call for Sterling’s head, if nothing else out of pure embarrassment. But what played out between Sterling and his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, on their now-infamous 9:23 conversation, yields insight into the middle ground Latin@s hold in America’s evolving race debate.
Let’s not even get into the connection between racism and patriarchy here, where Sterling’s main motivation seems to be that as an eighty something year-old playboy, he can’t stand to see his twentysomething girlfriend post photos of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram. Outside of that, he insists, he loves black people. He’s fine with making millions in philanthropic contributions to African-Americans, but doesn’t want someone close to him to be seen with them.
Granted, the conversation is between an odd couple most likely drawn to each other because of Sterling’s immense wealth, but if we take it at face value, embedded in the dialogue are clear representations of a central dynamic in the evolution of whiteness and racism in America. At the crux of that dynamic are Latin@s, who may ultimately determine whether or not whites are a majority in this country during the 21st century.
Stiviano presents a dilemma that threatens her relationship with Sterling: “I wish I could change the color of my skin” she says, but “I can’t be racist in my heart.” This is a problem faced by many Latin@s who aspire to “pass” as white in American society. But passing is something best accomplished through silence–the tacit approval of mainstream white racism. But, whether for ulterior reasons or not (why the recording was released to TMZ remains unclear), Stiviano refuses to silence herself.
“I am flexible,” she says, alluding to Latin@s’ ability to reach in either direction of the black/white racial binary. But, Sterling insists “You’re perceived either as a Latina or a white girl…You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.” In this way Sterling explains how he could be involved with Stiviano despite her being a somewhat dark-complexioned Latina. For his purposes, she is “either” Latina or white.
Then comes the bombshell of the conversation, a revelation that confuses and/or repels Sterling to the point that he’s considering breaking off their relationship. “I’m a mixed girl,” says Stiviano. “Black and Mexican…Whether you like it or not….You’re asking me to remove something that is a part of me and in my bloodstream.”
Again, this is an argument between an extremely wealthy man who has bought his consort three very expensive cars and a $1.8 million apartment. She may be performing for the recorder, but if she is, she’s an excellent actor, one who seems to be bringing her real-life story to her role, even as she will most likely become an instant social media megastar on the level of Kim K (glass half-full) or the Duke freshman Porn Star (half-empty).
Stiviano’s testimony points to the choice Latin@s have in determining America’s racial future. Will she be okay with being perceived as a “delicate Latina or white girl,” or will she listen to her heart and claim blackness? Being half-African American tilts the equation, but it shouldn’t make that much of a difference, since there is African blood in most of us who claim Spanish and/or indigenous roots.
A couple of weeks ago an article in Slate appeared that created a degree of consternation in the social media because of its mere suggestion that many Latin@s in the future may come to be classified as white. Titled “Will Today’s HIspanics Be Tomorrow’s Whites?” the article states that because of the widely projected increase in the minority population over the next 35 years, we may see something that happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when some groups who were previously considered non-white, like immigrants from Ireland and Germany, and later Southern and Eastern Europeans, were ultimately granted white status. It may be possible that Latin@s, particularly those with fairer skin, higher educational achievement, or more amassed wealth, may be able to construct a white identity.
This could be part of a process described by sociologist Herbert J. Gans in an article published in the Du Bois Review in 2012 called “Whitening and the Changing American Racial Hierarchy.” Gans feels that Latin@s could be key participants in this phenomenon: “The Latino Whitening process is most important,” he writes, “not only because Latinos are by far the largest immigrant group in the country, but also because class, skin color, and other phenotypical characteristics may vary more greatly with this group than among Asians.”
The ambiguity of how Latin@s are perceived racially, reflected in wildly varying phenotypes, not only raise the possibility of morphing toward whiteness, but can also shift the definition of whiteness away from skin tone towards one based more on social class. It’s clear that this has already happened, with limited impact, since Latin@s who become “white” tend to disappear in the suburbs or isolated parts of the country without leaving much of a trace. But what the Slate article proposes is a whitening that until now hasn’t been seen on a grand scale.
The Slate article could be criticized for its heavy referencing of right-wing media outlets like Fox News, National Review, and Breitbart in its discussion of George Zimmerman’s labeling as a “white Hispanic.” But its citations of authors like Ian Haney López and Nell Irvin Painter, two excellent contemporary race theorists, give its argument some credibility. If, as “The Next America,” the recent report by the Pew Research Center claims, the U.S. projects to be only 43% white by 2050, what could we expect the reaction to this specter to be?
Painter, in her book The History of White People, wrote about how the definition of whiteness changed during a murky history of “race science” that attempted to justify white supremacy through empirical studies of human skulls. Haney López constructs a framework of American politics that brings together neoliberalism–containing the growth of the state, from welfare to affirmative action–with a new form of racism. It is a racism that uses a “dog whistle” to communicate racist ideas without using specific slurs to indicate who is black, metaphorically or not.
In the introduction to Dog Whistle Politics, Haney López cites his Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell–who was also President Obama’s professor–who said, “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” These patterns are indeed changing, says Haney López, who confesses that after disagreeing at first, he has come around to Bell’s logic. The changes are happening to preserve the perception of a white majority in the US, and part of the strategy could be the whitening of at least some Latin@s.
Another model for the re-adaptation of America’s racist societal structure is proposed by Puerto Rican-born sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva. For more than 10 years, Bonilla Silva has been writing about his theory that we’re evolving from a bi-racial to a tri-racial hierarchy. Perhaps not by coincidence, this structure is the norm in Latin America. In his book Racism Without Racists, as well as in other texts, he argues that the tendency of Latin Americans is to deny the importance of race entirely, something increasingly apparent in American discourse. “We are all Americans!” is the preferred mantra now, the way in Puerto Rico people say “We are all Puerto Ricans,” and in Mexico people say “We are all Mexicans,” etc.
The tri-racial structure Bonilla Silva has devised is as follows:
1) Whites, composed of traditional whites, new immigrants, ligher-skinned children of mixed marriages, and “assimilated Latinos.”
2) Honorary Whites, composed of the majority of Latin@s, Japanese, Koreans, South Asian Indians, Chinese, the majority of mixed-race Americans, and Middle Easterners.
3) The Collective Black, composed of African-Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and (possibly) Filipinos.
What are “honorary whites”? They are perceived to be or claim to be neither black nor white, and they receive many of the privileges accorded to whites but without ever being completely accepted as white. According to Bonilla Silva, they could move up to white status depending on their achievements in education, wealth accumulation, or perhaps a strategic intermarriage. If you believe Bonilla Silva, it may be that the majority of Latin@s in the future could qualify as either white or honorary white. Doesn’t it seem a lot like Latin America?
There will always be indignation amongst our Latin@ brethren to suggestions that many of us will become white, across many media. How could it be that after almost 10 years of extremist anti-immigrant politics directed at Mexicans and Central Americans, Latin@s will become white? How could we identify as white if Puerto Rico was never even considered as a candidate for statehood in the early 20th century for fear of its mixed-race population? But we forget that one early strategy of elite Mexican Americans following the US-Mexican War was to claim white status, and that so many Boricuas in New York tried to pass for Spanish during the cruel age of racism that held sway in post-World War II New York. Finally, Afro-Latinos both in the US and Latin America continue to be marginalized, and distancing oneself from blackness has been a strategy used by other ethnic groups to attain whiteness in the past.
A recent study called “Latina/o Whitening: Which Latinas/os Self-Classify as White and Report Being Perceived as White by Other Americans?” makes the argument that the whitening of Latin@s is achieved through two factors: what the individual claims and how s/he is perceived. This perception could be affected by a combination of phenotypical appearance and social class. But although there are some Latin@s who claim whiteness, “many Latina/os appear to recognize that they may be arbitrarily choosing to identify with one inaccurate racial label over another by appealing to phenotypic or political similarities with other racial groups.” For that reason, says the article, the possibility of the creation of a separate racial category for Latin@s is under consideration by the Census Bureau.
This separate category, while allowing Latin@s to celebrate their mixed-raceness, would seem to be permeable, and perhaps create the conditions for honorary whiteness that Bonilla Silva talks about. If a Latin@ who was apparently “mixed” or even “white” chose to identify as black because of “political similarities,” is that necessarily inaccurate? Inaccurate enough to prompt the creation of a new racial category, which is not really a racial category, but a catch-all for mixed-race people? Sounds like Latin America again.
What is the future of Latin@s in a country of racism without racists? In the conclusion of “Latin/o Whitening” it says that contrary to previous speculation, Latin@s don’t appear to be actively seeking to claim whiteness. So is it possible, then, that the idea of blackness could also expand enough for many Latin@s to claim it? Instead of claiming the “brown” middle, maybe what a person of conscience should do is claim blackness regardless of whether or not one has a phenotypical appearance that would be considered “black.”
It may be that, whether she is a gold-digger or not, V. Stiviano is pointing us in the direction of seeking membership in the Collective Black body. It’s a philosophical imperative, a question of ethics. Bob Marley said that until “until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another Inferior” is discredited, there will be war. Rewording this slogan for the age of passive, yet vocal resistance, let us propose the idea that until there is no longer a stigma associated with blackness, we claim blackness. And in this way, avoid the dubious destiny of honorary whiteness.